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Merit Pay: An Agreeable Fantasy

April 26, 2011 2 comments

(Published March 2010 in Education Week)

Adlai Stevenson one quipped: “Americans are suckers for good news. Given a choice between disagreeable fact and agreeable fantasy they will choose the fantasy every time”. For decades the American public has chosen to believe in an agreeable fantasy that merit pay for teachers will cure the ills of our “failing public schools”, particularly urban and high poverty schools. This agreeable fantasy ignores three disagreeable facts: we already have merit pay in public education; there is no link between the performance of public schools and the revenues that fund public schools; and teachers don’t want merit pay.

FACT ONE: We Already Have Merit Pay

Our current method of school funding, which is based primarily on State and local taxes, creates a de facto merit pay system, a system that works against the urgent goal of providing quality instruction in districts with the highest poverty levels. Teachers working in school districts with high property tax revenues earn significantly more than their counterparts in other districts, and they have far superior working conditions. As a result, those wealthy districts attract and retain the best teachers while less affluent districts struggle to fill positions and often lose their most promising teachers to wealthier districts within commuting range.

Serving as a public school superintendent for over 25 years, I have experienced this de facto system of merit pay from both sides of the barrel. In the affluent college community in New Hampshire where I now work, our applicant pool includes not only a large number of recent college graduates with exceptional transcripts but also many experienced teachers from neighboring districts with solid experience and stellar references. These applicants are seeking jobs in our district in part because we pay very well compared to other districts in northern New England. Often, though, applicants indicate other reasons for applying to our district. They cite our superior professional growth opportunities, our fully staffed and equipped media centers; our wide range student services; the availability of technology, and our manageable class sizes and course loads. Most importantly, applicants want to work in our district because they know our students want to succeed in school, our parents understand and appreciate the value of education, and our community supports our schools by consistently passing budgets. A decade ago working in the Lower Hudson Valley in New York State I had the opposite experience. Each spring some of the best and brightest teachers regretfully submitted their resignations. They did so because they landed jobs in more affluent districts to the south where salaries, benefits, and working conditions were markedly better, and the communities more supportive. Our district paid relatively well for our region, but better opportunities existed within commuting distance and many of our exceptional veteran and promising newer teachers left for those jobs.

FACT 2: Performance is not linked to revenue in public education

Because public schools rely on State and local taxes, there is no connection between performance and funding. In the private sector, if a company’s profits increase, management can use those additional funds to reward those employees whose performance caused the bottom line to grow. In school districts, pay increases depend on tax revenues, which fluctuate due to variables beyond the control of school districts. When a district’s test scores soar during a year when the tax base declines due to erosion in the local property tax base, reduction in State aid, or the downshifting of State and/or Federal government costs, it is impossible to reward the improved performance. “Merit pay” funds for a district’s best teachers would be pitted against increased class sizes, the elimination of “non-essential” programs, deferring maintenance, or reducing compensation for other employees. None of these choices are politically possible.

FACT 3: Teachers do not want merit pay

Finally, the most insurmountable disagreeable truth about merit pay is that teachers don’t want it. Given the choice, teachers will accept decent pay and good working conditions over extraordinary pay and a stressful workplace.  Public school teachers want to work where they have a sense that they are making a difference in students’ lives, where they are respected and valued in the community, and where they can earn enough to live comfortably in the community where they work.

Finally, here’s the most disagreeable truth about our current funding for public education: only a sizeable and sustained infusion of money can offset the existing pay and workplace disparities that make a mockery of the ideal of equal opportunity in public schools. The hard-working teachers in low paying districts need decent wages; the forlorn schools in those districts need to be upgraded; all communities need access to current technology; and finally, students in all schools should have the staffing levels and rich curriculum offerings that are “givens” in affluent districts.

Calls for merit pay deflect the spotlight from the existing disparities in public education, overlook the disconnect between revenues and performance that exist in the public sector, and the need for communities to provide moral support to teachers as well as fiscal support. Until we face these disagreeable facts, the agreeable fantasy of merit pay should be put on the shelf with the other mental models that block progress in public education.

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